On the Turkmenistan side of the border, the operations were refreshingly (and somewhat unusually for an overland border) professional. Each official directed the travellers to the next one on the list for them to see. In fairness however, this professionalism came at a price. The guys had each already spent $85 US on the 5-day transit visas for the country, so to be charged an additional $10 US each (+ $2 US bank charges) was a little annoying. There was then a rather salty $60+2 US in fees to pay for each bike: five days’ insurance, fuel tax supplement and other assorted sundries (including vehicle disinfection, which Dan was looking forward to seeing – getting the bikes washed by officials would be a nice bonus). With a total of $158 US spent per bike and rider just to get into the country, this was going to be an expensive few days. Frustratingly, there was no negotiation possible at the border for the route – Dan and Ed were to go from Howdan to Konye-Urgench without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Whilst not entirely unexpected on a transit visa, this was disappointing. The guys were already resigned to the fact they’d not be able to visit the historic silk route cities of Mary and Merv, but they had hoped to nip a few kilometres off the route and have a cheeky swim in an underground lake to the west of the capital, Ashgabat. Needless to say, the bikes left the border every bit as “infected” with Iranian mud as they had arrived, the fee for disinfection clearly having been forgotten just as soon as it had been paid.
With the itinerary fixed by the border officials, there was nothing for it but to head for the capital, where the guys hoped to be able to change some money and buy some fuel. The unexpected and unwanted hotel stop in Gogo in Iran had robbed Dan of the Rials needed to fill his tank and it was already necessary to tip the bike to access the remaining fuel at the border. This shouldn’t be a big problem as the capital was only about 20 miles away, but it was an added stress given the lack of local currency to buy a top up. At the first police checkpoint inside Turkmenistan, the guys were stopped and asked to show passports, and then requested to pull wheelies away from the checkpoint when they left. Ed happily obliged, but knowing that to do so would slosh his fuel away from where it was required, Dan resisted the temptation of the officially sanctioned opportunity to pop the clutch and kept his front wheel on terra firma.
On arrival in Ashgabat, the first task was to find somewhere to stay, and the location of an economical homestay was sought. In many central Asian countries, homestays are offered like a less official form of B&B – the visitors usually have a room to themselves, but share bathroom facilities with the family. After leaving behind the impressive white concrete, white marble and gilded statue international facade of Ashgabat, a few streets back it’s all dirt roads and dilapidated houses. The cars on the streets also betray the truth about the real wealth of the place – yes, there are lots of high quality modern Japanese and German cars, but there’s also more than a scattering of ageing soviet tat. The locals are of course very friendly, but none of them had heard of the homestay the guys were looking for. The next place that was tried was a hotel which seemed to have been a recent victim of the continual redevelopment of the capital. Over the last forty or fifty years vast swathes of the city have been demolished to make way for suitably ostentatious new developments that the place simply doesn’t need and the locals cannot afford to use. The most famous example being a theme park in the city for which whole streets of houses and businesses were demolished, but which is closed most of the time due to a lack of customers able to afford the entry price. For a city so keen to nurture a modern developed world image, it seems strange that photography is problematic – you’d think that having spent so much time building these great monuments to oil wealth, the authorities would be keen for travellers to share the Ashgabat experience with those at home.
Eventually, some directions from a local did yield a hotel – Hotel Sayyat, which looked impressive enough from outside. Dan headed in to check the price and availability of a room, and was told it’d be $15 US each, including breakfast. Semi-secure motorcycle parking could be arranged in the car park behind for a couple of dollars more. The bikes were duly unloaded, and the moody administrator agreed to change dollars into local Turkmenistan Manat at the official rate of 2.84 to the USD. The guys headed up to the room on the fourth floor, braving the creaking lift due to the sheer volume of luggage that needed to be moved. The Lonely Planet guide had this to say about the place:
“Rather remotely located, this place isn’t a bad deal if you’re looking for a cheap-but-official bed. Rooms come in varying states of decay and each seems to have its own wallpaper pattern. The bathrooms are not a highlight. ”
Sure enough, the room itself didn’t quite live up to the impressive image presented by the front of the hotel and indeed Ashgabat in general. Dan and Ed are up for an adventure, but neither fancied plugging the TV into one of the pre-scorched electrical sockets in order to watch it. Catch fire.
The en suite bathroom however was truly something else. “Not a highlight” didn’t quite cover the scene of dilapidated destruction that faced them as they tentatively cracked open the bathroom door. Perhaps someone had lost something under the bath at some point and hammered or maybe just clawed their way through the tiled concrete base to retrieve it?
Keen to escape the depressing surroundings of the hotel room, the guys ventured down to the hotel bar to get something to eat and a couple of beers. The waitress was very cute, but sadly Dan’s camera was locked away upstairs in the room. In fact, it’s fair to say that Turkmen women in general are distinctly distracting after spending a couple of weeks in Iran where women are required to remain hidden at all times.
On Wednesday 1 June, there were a couple tasks to complete before leaving Ashgabat – find the DHL office to send Ed’s carnet back to the RAC in the UK, and find some fuel for both bikes before Dan’s bike stuttered to a halt. The DHL office was eventually located, but disappointingly in Turkmenistan independent operators are not allowed to offer express delivery, only freight forwarding services. All express deliveries have to be sent via the state-run monopoly. Rather than risk this, Ed opted to hang onto his carnet for another country, and send it from Uzbekistan in a week or so’s time. On the way out of the city, the guys finally passed a fuel station and Dan’s thirsty 28-litre tank took 28.68 litres. That then, was cutting it a bit fine. At least the good stuff (95 RON) was only 0.62 Manat a litre (approximately 14 pence). Iranian fuel had seemed cheap at 7000 Rial a litre (approximately 41 pence) but this was in an altogether different league.
The goal for the day was the gas crater at Darvaza. The village of Darvaza itself was demolished by presidential decree after failing to live up to “the standards of The Golden Age”. It still gives it’s name to the dramatic scene of an ecological disaster for which Turkmenistan is quite well known. In the 1950s or 60s, something went very wrong during an operation to extract natural gas in the Karakum desert, resulting in a large crater belching natural gas out of the porous rock just below the surface. With no means of stemming the flow, the authorities quite reasonably decided that the safest thing to do in order to avoid gas build up and risk of explosion, was to leave the crater burning, which is exactly what it has been doing ever since. The crater itself is approximately half way from Ashgabat to Konye-Urgench, about five miles down a dusty and sandy track off the main road, and is a popular quirky destination for tourists – there’s nowhere else in the world quite like it.
The maps the guys were using in their GPS units showed a number of small villages along the tarmac highway, so the natural assumption was that fuel would be available. Normally, wherever people can be found, so so too can refined hydrocarbons. On this occasion however, the guys had travelled 150 miles across the desert from Ashgabat, having only seen one fuel station 60 miles into the journey at which they’d not bothered to stop. Whilst Dan’s two-wheeled bowser is capable of over 400 miles on a tank, the range of Ed’s WR is only 220 miles or so, tops. Ed was understandably getting a bit nervous at this stage, about to head off onto a sandy track which would eat more fuel than the tarmac, with nowhere in sight to fill up. Near the unsigned turning to the crater for which the guys had a GPS waypoint, there was a sign to a railway station, and the guys headed off up there to see if they could pick up some fuel and some much needed water before heading off into the desert for the night. Fuel was apparently a problem. The guys there could arrange fuel, but at a rather inflated price brokered by one of the locals from a place near the airport about 20 miles down the road back towards Ashgabat. This didn’t sound too appealing as if it didn’t work out Ed would be even more short of fuel having doubled back to try and get some. Water was however available from a locked freezer on the station platform for just over a dollar a bottle. More expensive than Ashgabat for sure, but beautifully chilled water in the middle of a desert is almost priceless.
After spending a couple of hours sitting in the shade chatting to the guys at the train station and letting them admire the bikes, and indeed showing Dan and Ed their respective steeds – ex-soviet “???” (pronounced approximately “Eege”) machines, one of which had had a magneto grafted onto the side to keep it going when the original ignition system exited stage left.
Once the afternoon had started to cool down a bit, the guys decided to head to the crater for the night and worry about fuel in the morning. If it came to it and no fuel was forthcoming, it would be possible to drain some fuel out of Dan’s tank into Ed’s extra fuel bladder and transfer it into the WR. Once again the bikes handled the sand far better than their heavy Africa Twins had ever managed. Dan was actually starting to enjoy the experience until a rutted sandy corner got the DRZ very sideways and cross-rutted – a warning to Dan to calm it down a bit and concentrate or risk an inconvenient injury. Thankfully sandy ruts on the right bike are more forgiving than muddy ones and the bikes arrived at the crater with minimal drama. The guys didn’t have the place to themselves because sporadically a distant dust plume would turn into a 4×4 and moments later a gaggle of tourists would emerge, stumble around the edge of the crater and then disappear back from whence they came. A elderly Australian couple arrived in a similar fashion but ended up popping over for a chat and added that they would be staying in tents nearby before heading off in the morning. They got chatting and even saved the guys the usual self-promotion talk about the trip by explaining that they had in fact driven around the world in the Sixties, taking in Central Asia and Mongolia on a similar route to the guys. Before GPS or roads even. The team’s egos’ now suitably re-adjusted, they said their goodbyes and the guys returned to setting up their tents.
In daylight, the crater is a novel sight and fairly dramatic but not very photogenic. The ground is scattered with the scorched remains of beetles that have had the misfortune to fly over the heat of the crater, and approaching the blackened rim of the crater the sensation of the heat given off is truly oppressive.
To make the most of the place, it’s important to stay as the evening turns to night – at which point a bit of dust blowing over the crater on the desert breeze transforms it into a truly dramatic primeval sight and the light escaping from the flaming depths casts an eery glow on the surrounding desert scenery. At night, the place really does transform into it’s colloquial “gates of hell” name.
The next morning, 2 June, the guys packed up and left before the heat of the desert became too much for their dwindling water supplies. The low fuel situation was still a concern, and the guys back at the train station had implied that there wasn’t much to be had this side of Konye-Urgench, a further 160 miles or so away. The guys headed back along the sandy track to the main road, hoping to see some fuel for sale before Ed ran dry. Sadly, that wasn’t to be, and after 70 miles or so Ed’s bike stuttered to a halt. Dan’s fuel line was duly loosened and pointed into Ed’s fuel container and about half of Dan’s remaining fuel transferred into the WR. Hopefully this would leave both bikes enough to get to the next available fuel station. Thankfully, a fuel station appeared like an oasis in the desert 50 miles before Konye-Urgench, and it was a relief to brim both bikes again.
After the fuel station, the road deteriorated somewhat, and Ed in the lead would occasionally pull off onto the dusty shoulder of the road to avoid potholes in the tarmac. This is perfectly reasonable practice, but occasionally the resultant dust trail would drift across the road and obscure the obstacles from Dan’s view. Dan is not an experienced freestyle motocrosser, and the DRZ is no lightweight competition machine, but for a moment it was New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas and Dan was Robbie Maddison. The pothole that caused Dan to temporarily give up overlanding in favour of unorthodox air travel for a while was more akin to a crater, Dan was just grateful that this one at least wasn’t on fire.
After Dan landed the DRZ, the bikes continued across mostly featureless desert towards Konye-Urgench, passing the main historic site on the way into the modern town. The riders paused to form a plan of action and the locals visiting the place seemed more interested in the international visitors and their magnificent (flying) machines. The Lonely Planet guide had recommended two hotels, the best of which was on the road to the Uzbek border. Sure enough, the place offered air-conditioning, an immaculately laid table and clean furnishings, with clean shared bathroom facilities for 45 manat for the night. After lounging in the air conditioned comfort for a while, Dan and Ed got back on the bikes and headed back to the tourist attraction of the historic city ruins.
The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site and as in Ephesus, Dan found himself torn regarding the restoration/reconstruction of the buildings. The approach in the UK is generally to stabilise a historic site and preserve it in “as-found” condition, whereas the approach taken here was to rebuild, using new bricks where the originals were either not to be found or beyond re-use. The difference is that with the stabilisation approach it is possible to change your mind later. Once you’ve rebuilt, it’s impossible to go back to how it was.
On the morning of Friday 3 June, the guys stopped for provisions before leaving the country in a vain attempt to use up the remaining Turkmen Manat and the usual crowd formed round the bikes. After a few of the locals had requested permission to take photos of the visitors and their bikes on their mobile phones, Dan retaliated with the Canon 550D, much to the delight of the assembled throng. It seemed every man in Konye-Urgench wanted to be in the photo.
The run from Konye-Urgench to the border was easy and the exit formalities straightforward. There was a $10 exit fee to pay to add to the costs already accrued on entry, and after dealing with passport control and customs, one last official wanted to verbally check that the guys weren’t carrying any weapons, explosives or narcotics before waving them on their way to the Uzbek side of the border.